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Listening to the Howard Government and his big business cheer squad carry on about the ALP's industrial relations policy, one could be forgiven for thinking our modern economy was about to collapse and revert to some sort of socialist netherworld.
The Chicken Littles are running around conjuring up images of union officials in grey cardigans busting through the front door to tie reluctant workers to the yoke of collectivism. Their industrial relations scare campaign makes Children Overboard look downright subtle.
So what would an industrial relations system under a federal Labor Government look like?
You only need to turn to the NSW state system on which Craig Emerson's blueprint is based - a system that accounts for 60 per cent of the workforce in Australia's largest state economy.
NSW was the first state to deregulate its industrial relations system under the Greiner-Fahey governments. It was also the first state to restore some balance through the Carr Government's 1996 Industrial Relation Act.
That piece of legislation was the result of a truly consultative process where employer and union representatives worked with government to create a model that promoted fairness and cooperation in the workplace, underpinned by a strong award system and independent industrial umpire.
It has delivered a system where the NSW Industrial Relations Commission had both the confidence of the parties and the power to ensure these principles were advanced.
The NSW IRC has the power to compel parties to arbitration, an authority that has actually minimise disputation because parties know there will be no 'winner take all' outcome at the end of the process.
While there is a legislative process to simplify all awards, they contain the sort of provisions that John Howard has purged from the federal system and claims would lead the nation down the path to ruin.
These include such outrageous provisions as blood donors leave, provision of tea, coffee and drinking water, minimum and maximum part time hours, apprentice levels, provision for first aid and amenities and deduction of union dues. None of these provisions have led to the collapse of a single company, let alone the economy.
Major projects are covered by awards that bring together all unions and provide a stable industrial relations framework - the Sydney Olympics construction project, delivered on time and under budget, for example, was covered by a specific enterprise award.
The NSW system allows for another of the Coalition's bogeys - the right for a trade union official to enter a workplace where the union has coverage to speak to the workers - in fact, these types of provisions already exist at a federal level as well.
Where this power has been used, union officials have uncovered illegal sweatshops, unsafe construction sites and major taxation and payroll fraud. A few businesses may well have suffered adversely, but only when they were acting against the law and placing their workers in physical or material danger.
The NSW system also has a specific objective of providing "a framework for the conduct of industrial relations that is fair and just" - and gives the Commission the power to put these considerations at the centre of its deliberations - balanced by a discreet objective to "to promote efficiency and productivity in the economy of the State".
These objects have provided the framework for some groundbreaking test cases - including the landmark 1999 Ministerial Reference into Gender Pay Equity and the current Secure Employment Test Case.
These cases may well have delivered a modicum of dignity for working people; but have they - as John Howard, Hugh Morgan and co assert - delivered an economic basket case?
Let's look at the numbers: NSW is by far Australia's biggest economy; in 2003 it constituted 35 per cent of the national output; 45 per cent of the nation's top 500 companies are based here - clearly they are not scared off by the NSW industrial relations system.
NSW accounts for 42 per cent of all jobs in Australia, enjoys the highest Gross State Product, the most high tech jobs and the cheapest electricity prices in mainland Australia.
Far from squeezing productivity out of the state, any impartial observer would have to say that to the extent that the NSW system represents re-regulation, it does so in a tempered, cooperative and outcomes driven manner.
The reason the Coalition and the likes of the BCA hate this model is that it provides a counter to the winner takes all, survival of the fittest model that has been advanced federally since 1996.
Unions do not expect a Labor Government to do our work for us, all we ask is for a fair system where we can get on and do our job - representing the interests of our members - secure jobs, decent wages and a stab le economy.
John Robertson is the secretary of the NSW Labor Council
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